It was a long and tortuous journey to their first European Cup final for two decades, but the Liverpool faithful finally found redemption on the road to Istanbul. Special report on the night they'll never forget by Paul Wilson, Brian Oliver and Kaz Mochlinski
Sunday May 29, 2005
All 11 of the goals scored in the 2005 Champions League final came at one end of the pitch. The net at the other end, thanks to heroics from Jerzy Dudek and Djimi Traoré, among others, remained unused all night. So did a huge pile of bricks in the city centre. The significance of both is immense, even if the occasion will rightly be remembered for one and not the other.
The real joy of the most remarkable European Cup final of all was a double happy ending for players and fans. On the road to Istanbul, the two travelled together and if anyone was in any doubt after the quarter-finals and semi-finals that a closer symbiosis exists between the team and the supporters in Liverpool than almost anywhere else in the world, the dramatic scenes at the end were a clincher. When Dudek saved Andriy Shevchenko's final penalty at 12.29am local time, some of the Liverpool players were noticeably quicker to hug members of the crowd than their team-mates.
There were two reasons for the uninhibited sense of release and only one of them was because this was the greatest comeback in the history of European finals. The other related to the events of 20 years ago, when Liverpool were last in the European Cup final against Juventus. The road to Istanbul really began in Brussels 20 years ago today, when Liverpool's domination of Europe came to such an abrupt and tragic end and all the club's supporters had to endure the lasting stigma of causing the death of 39 innocent fans at Heysel.
Overlooked in the rush to judgment during the five-year ban on English clubs in Europe that followed were two facts. One was that the vast majority of Liverpool supporters that night were uninvolved in any wrongdoing. The second was that the fans who were responsible for charging at a Juventus section to occupy an end were behaving in a way considered normal on the terraces at the time. It took another disaster, at Hillsbor ough four years later to bring about a culture change and by that stage Liverpool were carrying the can for the careless way in which we all used to watch football.
Cut to a street a few hundred yards from Istanbul's Blue Mosque in the early hours of Wednesday. This is the first European Cup final held in a Muslim city, but the relaxed, cosmopolitan form of Islam lite in Istanbul means the bars and cafés in the backpackers' area are still thronged with Liverpool drinkers even as the muezzin begins his dawn call to prayers. Apart from giant Fenerbahçe flags at roof level in honour of the club's recent league triumph, there are only red shirts and Liverpool drinkers in sight.
Maybe this part of town is not chic enough for Milan fans: as at the stadium later, the city seems dominated by Liverpool followers. Perhaps for this reason, the atmosphere, while boisterous, is unthreatening. Just as well because this particular street is being repaved.
A lorry load of sand was dumped at one end earlier in the day and all down the sides of the street, right next to the tables where supporters are drinking and in some cases dancing, are loose piles of fist-size cobblestones. Had any or all of these ended up through shop windows, or raining down on the heads of rival fans, Istanbul would have been described as poorly prepared, an accident waiting to happen, just like Brussels. The bricks stay untouched. It is not circumstances that cause problems, it is the way supporters behave.
That Liverpool fans would be on their best behaviour was clear from flight BA680 from Heathrow, which arrived at Atatürk airport shortly after 11pm on Tuesday. The beer ran out before Belgium and the wine lasted only until Bulgaria, but by the end of the flight half the cabin crew had successfully located spare tickets for the match and the chief stewardess thanked everyone on board. 'We were wondering what to expect, but you have been fantastic,' she announced over the Tannoy. 'Have a wonderful time in Istanbul.'
At the back of the plane a cartoon Ulsterman called Paddy addressed the fans and he did not need any amplification. An attempt to get the whole flight to sing the real words to 'Fields of Athenry' failed to get off the runway, so he switched to the direct approach. 'This isn't just about football,' he shouted. 'This is about support! It's about positive energy! The match starts now!' That was at 10.30pm. Almost exactly 24 hours after Paddy's exhortations, Liverpool were walking off the pitch at half-time in need of all the positive energy they could muster.
The real road to Istanbul - to the Atatürk Olympic Stadium, that is - is so new that the white lines were still being painted on the morning of the match and in their haste to complete the project the contractors have also managed to coat litter, rubble and parts of the grassy verge in white. There is nothing wrong with the Atatürk Stadium, or the new roads leading to it, except for their location miles out of the city, nowhere near a railway line or any other sign of civilisation.
Istanbul's new showpiece is already unloved and unwanted, so much so that Fenerbahçe fans have given it the thumbs-down after two seasons of playing there and Turkey players have refused to play a World Cup tie against Greece - their biggest game in qualifying - at the Atatürk next month.
There is a limited market for journalists' hard-luck stories, so the following examples will be brief. We had to go to the stadium twice on the same day, first to get accredited, then to the match. In the process we managed to abandon three taxis. The first, in the morning, actually abandoned us. The driver expressed his frustration with successive police roadblocks so forcibly that he got himself arrested; he was hauled out of his cab and fined. Even though we had been in his cab for almost an hour, we were miles from the ground and although we were lucky enough to hail a second taxi in an unpromising location, our problems were far from over.
After taking us to the stadium, our new driver tried several ways of returning to Istanbul, only to be defeated on each occasion by blocked roads or dead ends. He was eventually reduced to stopping to ask one of the few locals for directions to the road to Istanbul. The poor man had been a cabbie for 10 years and had never encountered anything like the venue for the 2005 Champions League final.
After that experience it was clear that the evening journey, with about 80,000 others going the same way, would be, as the taxi driver put it 'catastroph, catastroph'. Our first cab of the evening could not even get out of a gridlocked city centre and although the second managed to break out of the business district, the journey to the stadium was a painful two-hour crawl that eventually came to a grinding halt with the Atatürk a couple of miles distant. Uefa certainly know how to pick a venue.
One hour before kick-off the scene immediately around the stadium resembled something from a science fiction film. In mounting darkness, a queue of vehicles - mostly taxis and buses - disgorged their passengers as they stuttered, bumper to bumper, along the length of the two main approach roads to the stadium. Their passengers climbed out and walked - some as far as five miles - along verges or across fields of baked mud to the stadium, shining like a recently landed spaceship in the distance.
All those whose journeys involved overland travel from Bulgaria or £500 taxi rides from Turkey's holiday destinations deserved better than such Third-World chaos at the end of their road to Istanbul. One fan, who had travelled from Austria, screamed 'Ice age! Ice age!' in frustration at the facilities. Liverpool fans, advised to arrive early, had got through without any bother five hours before kick-off, only to find no food or drink - not even water - on sale at their end of the stadium and many could not even buy a match programme to pass the time. Apparently, someone stole most of them.
Even with this level of inconvenience, the mood was upbeat and spirits were remarkably high. At various points during the journey the road passed housing projects and what appeared to be detention camps. In both cases the occupants had taken to the streets to watch the procession of Liverpool fans. Early evening Turkish television cannot be up to much if people prefer to stand at the roadside or sit on the verge to watch the whole of Istanbul's taxi fleet inching by.
Many locals dodged cars, trying to sell cans of Efes beer to anyone who had room for more, while others held slogans backing Liverpool. 'Reds, club of the Labour class, welcome to Istanbul' read one placard held up in the remote suburb of Besakhseur. It was as if the resentment at Everton styling themselves the people's club on Merseyside had spread even to Turkey.
Some of the more enterprising Liverpool fans hired motorcycle couriers to beat the traffic. Local youths with two-wheeled transport were paid a few lire to take a pillion passenger to the match. One such Motorbike Man contributed enormously to the pre-match entertainment, standing on the pegs at the back of the bike wearing nothing but shorts, trainers and a selection of tattoos on his upper body. At the end of one outstretched arm was a can of beer, at the end of another a red shirt coiled like a scarf. There were speed bumps in the road, but the driver gamely flew over them without slowing down and his passenger, equally bravely, maintained his crucifixion position throughout, bouncing over the bumps and relaxing only occasionally to take a sip of beer or slap the raised palm of an amused roadside Turk.
At all other times he was singing the tune that Liverpool have adopted as their unofficial tour anthem, the first few bars of Johnny Cash's 'Ring of Fire'. No words, just the tune - the one you could hear Steve Gerrard singing when he went to the fans at the end of the game. 'De de de de de de der der.'
It does not mean much, but it carries the sort of righteous bravado that sounds perfect when you are speeding to a match bare-chested, standing on the back of a motorbike - bravado that increased over the final leg of the journey when Motorbike Man somehow encouraged another fan to join him and there were three on the bike.
It sounded good when Liverpool fans en masse sang it in the stadium, too. Most Liverpool songs sound good. As an Everton fan admitted through gritted teeth the night before the match, Liverpool not only pick good songs but they sing them with a passion.
As a preposterous opening ceremony reached a conclusion on the pitch, the two-thirds of the crowd dressed in red ran through stirring, but less-than-full-throttle, versions of 'You'll Never Walk Alone' and the present favourite, 'Fields of Anfield Road'. The latter, cleverly linking the city's Irish heritage with a good tune and some deft adaptations, is a good example of what Liverpool do best: 'All round the fields of Anfield Road,/Where once we watched the King Kenny play,/(And could he play!).'
They were still singing when Liverpool went a goal behind in 53 seconds, the unlikely figure of Paolo Maldini scoring without much opposition after coming up to support Milan's first attack. Liverpool supporters know what to do in these circumstances and bold statements of confidence were soon ringing around the ground. This was a football game, not a singing contest, though, and during the first half the confidence and the positive energy transferred wholly to the Italians.
Liverpool were unlucky when claims for a penalty against Alessandro Nesta were waved away and Milan went down the pitch to score a second goal while Milan Baros and a few others were protesting, but that moment of misfortune was balanced by the goal Shevchenko had chalked off through a borderline offside ruling.
Kaká was running the show for Milan, a point made forcibly to some of his team-mates by Vladimir Smicer when he came on in the 23rd minute for the injured Harry Kewell, and simultaneously running Liverpool ragged, as he showed when he sent Hernán Crespo clear to score Milan's third goal. 'They outclassed us,' Gerrard said later. 'They deserved to be 3-0 up.'
At this point even the most optimistic Liverpool fans were hoping only for the embarrassment to stop. The idea that 'Liverpool's name is on the trophy' had been mentioned frequently during the build-up, thanks to the close shave against Olympiakos in the group stage and the improbable results against Juventus and Chelsea by a team who had managed to lose at home to Grazer AK, of Austria. But there was no talk and seemingly no hope of anything so fanciful during the interval. A few punters in England scrambled to put money on a Liverpool victory at 359-1, but they were gamblers responding to attractive odds, not analysts acting on the evidence of the first 45 minutes.
In the queue for toilets in the West Stand a well-dressed Milan fan, alone among a line of Liverpool followers, gestured to them with a praying motion, a frown and a look that said: 'Please, don't blame me. I know my team has just humiliated your team, but it's not my fault.'
Some Liverpool fans behind the goal - perhaps as many as 40 - left the stadium after the third goal went in. What had promised to be an extraordinary celebration had become unwatchable, but at least they were allowed back in later.
A whole new generation of Liverpool supporters had invested a great deal in this match, anxious to emulate their forebears and follow the Reds to the ends of the earth if necessary. After 20 barren years, a European Cup final appearing unexpectedly on the horizon was too good a chance to miss. It was their shot at history, but history was playing a cruel joke. Liverpool fans had gone to extraordinary lengths to travel to the most grotesquely one-sided European Cup final of all time and the team and their fans were heading for ignominy and shame.
That was the situation facing Rafael Benítez and his players at the interval. There seemed no possible way back, only a stab at damage limitation, a point made to the Liverpool chairman, David Moores, at half-time by Michel Platini. The players knew they had performed poorly for 45 minutes. Men such as Traoré, Sami Hyypia and Luis García, for all their heroics in previous rounds, appeared to have reverted to type, as bottlers with no claim to be anywhere near European football's top stage.
Sensibly, Benítez's first action was to correct his initial mistake and reinforce the midfield with Dietmar Hamann, to prevent Kaká enjoying such free reign. That also had the effect of releasing Gerrard farther forward and the captain headed the goal that started the recovery. As Hamann made clear, though, that was pretty much the limit of Liverpool's half-time plan.
'My coach told me to warm up just before the break,' Hamann said. 'He told me I was going to take care of Kaká. I didn't think it was possible to turn things around, but in the dressing room at half-time Rafa Benítez was calm. He said, "We are Liverpool FC, we have so many fans, we are not going to be slaughtered. If we can score a goal quickly we can push on from there." '
Eyewitness accounts from the dressing room insist that most of the players were slumped and barely listening when Benítez began to speak - even Gerrard had his head down and everyone assumed it was all over - yet the manager successfully urged his team to go out and attack Milan to see what might happen.
Benítez suggested Milan might not have much left in their legs, that they may be psychologically brittle after losing the Serie A title late in the season to Juventus. Benítez was perhaps the biggest optimist in the stadium and maybe he was clutching at straws, but his prediction was uncannily accurate.
He had luck on his side, too. His original plan was to withdraw Traoré for Hamann, but he had to rethink when Steve Finnan was unable to take the field for the second half. Switched to the left side of a back three, Traoré rediscovered the inspired form that had deserted him in the first 45 minutes and even managed a goalline clearance to deny Shevchenko a likely winner.
Whatever Benítez said, he did not say anything about scoring three goals in six minutes. With Kaká shackled, Gerrard's goal rocked Milan and the captain exhorted his team-mates and the fans to raise their game. They all did.
Perhaps it was exhaustion after a long season, perhaps the memory of scraping through against PSV Eindhoven in the semi-finals or blowing a 4-1 lead against Deportivo La Coruña in the quarter-finals last year, but for a 10-minute period Milan were dead on their feet and directionless. 'I don't think one can explain what happened,' said stunned Milan coach Carlo Ancelotti later.
Liverpool punished them by scoring twice more in that time. For the briefest moment it appeared they could score a fourth and complete a remarkable comeback in normal time, but Milan reasserted their professionalism and discipline and in extra time Liverpool played for penalties, knowing that whatever happened they had rescued their reputation and done more than their supporters could have asked.
'Three goals in six minutes,' Hamann said. 'You are out there thinking, "This is not for real, you must be in a dream". And when Shevchenko missed that chance in the last minute I just knew we would win on penalties.'
Jamie Carragher said of Shevchenko's miss: 'I was waiting for the net to bulge. I couldn't believe it wasn't game over and that was the moment I felt our name was on the cup.' Even the Italians knew. Crespo said: 'I thought my goals had won it, but I knew that save was the moment we said bye-bye to the cup.'
Dudek unexpectedly emerged as the hero of the night, both for his saves and his barely legitimate tactics during the shootout, but the real achievement belonged to Benítez for altering the body language and changing the outlook of his players during the interval.
The manager continued to make changes. Gerrard became the third player to step in at right-back with a performance that suggested he might be the best of the lot. The positive energy was all with Liverpool now. Even if their bodies showed signs of exhaustion, even if they collapsed in agony with cramp, the fans were lifting them, the force was with them and the fans were singing the best song of the lot: 'We shall not be moved....'
'It all seemed done and dusted at half-time,' Dudek said. 'The talk was about avoiding humiliation, but the manager told us if we could score in the first 10 minutes after the break we had a chance. That is what we did and it took Milan by surprise. You could sense the mood changing. We could only be happy we took it to a shootout, while from Milan's position it must have been devastating.'
That point was reinforced by Ancelotti. 'Penalty shootouts are as much about psychology as they are about technique,' he said later. In other words, Milan just did not have the mental strength for the shootout, which was clear from Serginho's body language before he blasted Milan's first kick high and wide.
Liverpool had meticulously prepared for penalties, to the extent that Dudek knew which way every player was likely to shoot - except that in every case the homework was wrong. 'It shows Rafa Benítez is not infallible,' said Dudek, who dedicated his success to the late Pope and returned to Poland after the celebrations for his son's first communion, a long-planned event postponed from last Sunday because of Liverpool's unforeseen presence in Istanbul.
'When they took their shots they all went in the opposite direction to what we were expecting,' Dudek said. 'I took Jamie Carragher's advice and tried to repeat what Bruce Grobbelaar did in 1984.'
That was a shootout victory, too, against Roma, and Grobbelaar him self explained what happened. 'Joe Fagan told me to try and put them off,' he said yesterday. 'I bit the net and it looked like spaghetti so I decided to do the spaghetti legs routine. Why bite the net? Just to try and put them off - and it worked.'
Dudek said: 'I started to dance as well. I did not manage to disturb Jon Dahl Tomasson and it did not really affect Kaká, either, but with the others it worked. Jon mentioned after that standing forward of the line was not legal, but the referee did not stop it. People forget that Dida did the same thing when Milan won the final two years ago [in a shootout against Juventus]. All anyone remembers is who won.
'Penalties are such a huge test of nerve for a goalkeeper. I was so focused I did not even realise my save from Shevchenko meant we had won. It was only when I saw the rest of the boys running towards me that I knew. It means a lot to have contributed to such an achievement, not just in the shootout, but in the match itself. My brother rang me on Thursday and described the save from Shevchenko at the end of extra time as the Hand of God. The free-kick save from Shevchenko at the start of the second half was just as important in the end. I saw it late and just had time to stick out a hand. Had there been a fourth goal at that stage I don't think there would have been penalties.'
There would have been little debate about who was the real man of the match, either. The deserving Gerrard was not a bad choice, if predictable, but the impression that all Dudek's best work came in the final few minutes was wrong. Spare a thought, too, for the unlucky Shevchenko, who was denied four times by Dudek, once by Traoré and once by a referee's assistant. Try telling him that Liverpool's name was not on the cup all along.
Back in Istanbul, after a slightly quicker return journey than the one out to the stadium, it is doubtful whether a single Liverpool fan was in bed by the time the minaret dawn chorus began at 4.30am, especially because some of the supporters' buses took three hours to return to party central at Taksim Square.
Most of the supporters lucky enough to fly back to Heathrow on Thursday morning - plenty were still stranded in Turkey or adjoining countries by Friday - seemed to have saved sleep for the flight. The same pilot who successfully touted for a ticket on the way out apologised for being hoarse because he had supported Liverpool, then sensibly kept comments to a minimum. Until reaching Blighty and the inevitable holding pattern over Heathrow, when the voice from the cockpit offered an appraisal of the English weather.
'Look out the window and you'll see it's a beautiful day,' he informed passengers. 'As far as I can see there is only one small cloud, just hovering over Stamford Bridge.' Applause broke out at this early-morning wit.
A metaphorical nimbus was probably hovering over Old Trafford, too because not only have Liverpool got the trophy for keeps but they have a better comeback tale than United in 1999. The pilot, though, cannot see that far. Chelsea is quite far enough, when you have been on the road to Istanbul.
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